Monday, September 25, 2017

Why We're Broken

This month, we were asked to weigh in on whether we need to talk more about racism in education. I find myself itching to limit the entire post to one word: yes. It feels so obvious, so desperately apt. Instead, without trying to substitute racism for casteism, or suggesting that they're interchangeable, I'm going to use this space to, among other things, talk about the equivalence there exists between the structuring principles of race and caste, and how this affects the education system in India. I have to start, however, by going back to an idea I started playing with a few posts ago: an education that does not equip one to challenge the inequalities hardwired into the world we've created is no education at all. Education is political: if it does not challenge status quo, it reinforces it.

Who gets to study is no longer a question we ask in India - at least on paper, everyone does. With the passage of the RTE Act (Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009), education is now a fundamental right for all children in India between the ages of 6 and 14. Where do they get to study, though? For how long? How far must they travel to access the nearest school or college? How many teachers actually show up at aforesaid school or college? What are their qualifications (and no, I don't mean merely degrees: everyone knows there are several ways to acquire these pieces of paper)? Is the school in question guilty of upholding caste norms in its seating arrangements/access to amenities/treatment of students, regardless of whether we're talking about rural or urban settings (because, increasingly, the contours of both ideas - though especially 'rural' as a category - are being renegotiated, in sometimes contentious ways)? These are the questions which ought to animate and inform public discourse and policy decisions about the education system. Instead, the current right-wing hegemons appear interested only in rewriting history altogether - renaming roads[1], cities, schools and other institutions; recasting ancillary figures on the far-right like Deendayal Upadhyay as important 'national' figures[2], while suggesting travesties like the fact that Emperor Akbar did *not* win a battle we know he did[3]; suggesting that the RSS had a role to play in India's Independence movement (mpppfffftt - it's tough to not snigger at the thought of this bizarre inversion of historical facts) - all so as to recast Hindutva as a principle foundational to the idea of India. News flash: it simply wasn't.

India is rabidly racist - one has only to think of the horrendous treatment we mete out to students from elsewhere, particularly ones from African nations[4] - but how could we possibly not be? Any nation that can stomach the principle of caste, which is the most brutal 'classification' of human beings based on birth anywhere in the world,  cannot help but differentiate, and differentiate repeatedly, on the basis of every parameter society can construct in a desperate and insular bid to separate 'us' from 'them'. 


Despite outlawing "untouchability", often written off by caste apologists as the only thing wrong with the caste system; as the aberration of what was once a just system predicated merely on the division of labour (and not labourers, as Babasaheb sharply reminds us), India has never rid herself of the scourge that is caste itself. The RTE might make it so that the children of manual scavengers - the erstwhile 'untouchables' - may now attend a primary school alongside their so-called 'forward caste' peers. But once there, if they're made to (as Babasaheb himself was) sit-eat-drink separately from the other children[5], how is anything ever going to change? "Segregation, humiliation, and violence,"[6] as Harsh Mander writes: these are the lot of Dalit children who dare to imagine that they can avail themselves of an education.

Nothing short of critical pedagogical interventions which would overhaul what we consider to be the very purpose of our educational system, and the resources to channel these interventions into more meaningful curricular design, can help us change these terms of engagement. The system is broken (although I don't think there was ever a time when it wasn't; education has always, in some shape or form, been the preserve of a few - the Brahmins along the caste axis; the elite when it comes to class - and has been responsible for ossifying instead of challenging class/caste divisions). Any wonder then that it can only churn out broken people like ourselves?                           

[3] Read more here, in case this absurdity passed you by:
[4] This is only the most recent incident in a long, long list of ignominies:

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Happiness (or something that tastes a heck of a lot like it)

In a staggering little piece for Jacobin called 'In the Name of Love'[1], Miya Tokumitsu takes a good long look at the adage 'Do What You Love' (DWYL) - a mantra Millennials world-over seem to live by (or spend their lives straining to live by, at any rate) - and makes a searing case for how, in one fell swoop, DWYL "distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labour, whether or not they love it." I start my piece on this note primarily in a bid to deconstruct this month's editorial prompt which informs me that studies on 'happiness' show that "job-related satisfaction" seems to be a recurring theme for Millennials. In fact, the Happify study's[2] Chief Data Science Officer Ran Zilca goes as far as holding that, "if we overlay gratitude with long-term and short-term goals, a picture surfaces of a Millennial mind that is mainly occupied with landing the perfect job and that is subject to a good deal of stress and anxiety. Based on these results, it can be concluded that some Millennials place far too much emphasis on work as the key to their happiness.”

Now I don't know about you, but I find this disconcerting: what sort of a nightmarish Catch-22 situation is this? We seek 'happiness' not in who we are, but in what we do, because we inhabit a culture which glorifies the idea that we'll be happy only as long as we don't perceive that what we do is actually 'work' at all.

Of course, as Tokumitsu warns us, the real achievement of this insidious creed is that it makes "workers believe their labour serves the self and not the marketplace," - you don't mind putting in the endless hours, going nights on end without sleep, skipping endless meals, and basically neglecting your body till it threatens to break down all because you derive happiness from the comfort - the privilege - of loving what you do. I should know. I speak from experience. Time was, I'd convinced myself that I had never worked a day in my life (despite the fact that I've held down a job since I was 18) because how could someone paying me to read, write, teach and basically live the life of the mind I was born to live actually be considered something as base as, gasp, work? I think back to my time as a journalist, when I was part of the core team that launched a national newspaper in Gujarat: we'd make and edit mock-ups almost all night; be back at the news-room the next afternoon to have at it all over again. On the eve of our first issue, I remember staggering into my house at 7.30 am, only to be back in the newsroom less than 6 hours later. And I remember loving it: work gave me purpose. I derived (and in so many ways, continue to derive, although I promise I'm working on weaning myself off this dependence) my sense of self from that which I did because it gave me agency: I would write/teach the world better. Pfft. I sound fatuous, even to my own ears.

Happiness isn't a one-size-fits all thing. Consider this: Manik, who knows me about as well as I know myself, maintains that I'm only happy when I'm angry. When I'm smarting at some injustice in the world. When I'm scowling about something evil he's said. My friends and family know that I'm the easiest person in the world to wind up: they've pretty much made a sport out of it (Olympic licence pending), trying to outdo each other at coming up with shit they know will bother me silly (I'm looking at you, Marc and Raag). But that they try makes me...happy. And perhaps this is what happiness is to me. This endless teeth-gnashing. And curling up with the books (endless: thank you paycheque/capitalism - you've got my back) I can buy because I do what I love, which I realise now is still 'work' for all my deluded posturing otherwise; waking up to a hovering Clouseau who doesn't realise he's no longer a puppy dribbling all over me; making music with my walrus of a father three times a week; being ensconced in the (orange) fragrance of my mother's arms; hearing Manik tell me to 'lax each time I say I miss him - what's not to love about all of this? I just have to remember to leave campus when I exit it each day, because there's happiness to be found in that to. But I'm going to leave the 'chasing' analogy behind. Pursuit takes work. More work. And I work enough. In fact,  I'm going to let myself just occupy happiness instead.


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Gender as delusion/reality; inequity

I thought this month's piece would fairly write itself given that it is meant to discuss that which is closest to what I do, and what I've spent roughly half a lifetime (and counting) obsessing with: the workings of that structuring principle of/in society we call gender. As is often the case with anything we're too close to though, it's almost impossible to decide where to begin, or what is to delimit the discursive field this piece will inhabit: do I speak about the constructedness of sex (yes - think outside the binary of male/female and realise these are constructs too - read Anne Fausto Sterling's Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (2000) for more on this theme) and gender (this is now almost a given - everyone knows, after de Beauvoir, that "one is not born, rather one becomes, a woman,"[1]), or  am I to muse, after Butler, on what it means to "perform" one's gender (Butler holds that gender is “a stylized repetition of acts . . . which are internally discontinuous . . .[so that] the appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief,”[2])? Or perhaps explore the import of work like Cordelia Fine's[3], when she takes on the current glut of pseudo-scientific posturing which seeks to reaffirm biological essentialism? Sing odes to Woolf, Gilbert and Gubar, Showalter, Moi, de Beauvoir, Cixous, Kristeva, and the scores of others, from the earliest suffragettes on, who made it so that the world didn't have a choice but to recognise women as equal players in spheres public and private? I'd like to, but it would take more an epic in terms of genre than a blog-post to make that happen.

So I'll do what I learnt to do from an old, sometimes imperious imp you might've encountered in my posts before - you know the one - and start by examining my immediate context. What does it mean to be a woman in India today? How does my generation look at gender and its attendant politics? Does young India persist in reading the body of the woman as the repository of her family's honour (and shame when this body is violated)? How do caste, class, religion, access to education and other factors coalesce in the making of this mythical beast we call woman? There is a gender wage gap here of course, one of the worst in the world - see the chart I've attached below for more - but honestly, that's the least of my concerns. Why? Because more worryingly, for what it tells us about the society it refers to, is the fact that India ranks 120th out of 131 countries in terms of the number of women (around 27%) who participate in its work force at all[4]. This could be for various reasons of course, but the one I find most troubling comes from a youth survey conducted by CSDS-KAS in 2016. This survey found that 40% of its respondents - over 6000 young Indians between the ages of 15 and 34 across 19 cities - agreed with the proposition that women should not work after marriage[5]. On matters pertaining to caste and gender, as becomes obvious  very quickly through even a cursory glance at this survey, young India is probably even more conservative than the generations which came before it.     


Is there a way out of this mess? A move towards gender justice and equity? I think there is, but it feels a painfully long way away from our present. If it is to come, I think our only hope is to realise that no one is free till everyone is; it is to recognise - and inevitably do the hard work that such recognition necessarily demands of us as a corollary - that intersectionality is our only hope for salvation: till the women's movement speaks to the Dalit movement, and both to the various movements which seek to eliminate poverty whilst arguing for a developmental policy which isn't premised on bankrupting the natural world of its very finite resources, I don't know how change can come. We live in a country where kangaroo courts (khap panchayats, anyone?) order 'honour-killings' (Hint: there's nothing honourable about killing. Ever.) if a woman marries outside her caste or religion; a country where to be born a woman is to police one's every move - or have it done for you by family, friends, "well-wishers" who only want to make sure we don't get hurt if we decide to come home late one night - from literally the moment we're old enough to walk; a country, ultimately, which feels less and less like one where there's room for women to be read as human beings, not defined by their relationship to men (as wives, mothers, sisters and c.). For every hard-fought gain made by the women's movement, it seems like we take two steps backwards, and this backlash is violent and vicious.
Young India dreams, but from the look of it, these dreams are gendered. And they are not my dreams.

[1] Simone de Bauvoir, The Second Sex (1949)
[2] See this link for more:
[3] Do yourself a favour and pick up a copy of her Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference (2010)  immediately.
[4] See this article for more:
[5] See this for an analysis of the survey: